Life-threatening inflammation turns COVID-19 into a chronic disease

GAINESVILLE, Florida — Long COVID continues to be a persistent problem for more and more coronavirus patients in the months following their infection. Now, a new study claims that the life-threatening inflammation that many patients experience – causing long-term damage to their health – turns COVID-19 into a chronic disease.

“When someone has a cold or even pneumonia, we usually think the illness is over once the patient recovers. This is different from a chronic illness, like congestive heart failure or diabetes, which continues to affect patients after an acute episode. Similarly, we may need to start thinking that COVID-19 has ongoing effects in many parts of the body after patients have recovered from the initial episode says first author Professor Arch G. Mainous III, vice chair for research in the Department of Community Health and Family Medicine at the University of Florida Gainesville, in a press release.

“Once we recognize the importance of a ‘long COVID’ after an apparent ‘cure’, we need to focus on treatments to prevent later problems, such as strokes, brain dysfunctions and especially the untimely death.”

COVID inflammation raises risk of death a year later

The study finds that COVID patients with severe inflammation while in hospital saw their risk of death skyrocket by 61% over the next year after recovery.

Inflammation increasing the risk of death after illness is a seemingly confusing concept. In general, inflammation is a natural part of the body’s immune response and healing process. However, some diseases, including COVID-19, cause this infection control response to be exceeded. Previous studies call this the “cytokine storm,” an event where the immune system begins to attack healthy tissue.

“COVID-19 is known to create inflammation, especially in the first acute episode. Our study is the first to examine the relationship between inflammation during hospitalization for COVID-19 and mortality after the patient has ‘recovered’,” says Professor Mainous.

“Here we show that the stronger the inflammation at initial hospitalization, the greater the likelihood that the patient will die within 12 months of apparently ‘recovering’ from COVID-19.”

There is a way to stop harmful inflammation

The study looked at the health records of 1,207 adults hospitalized with COVID-19 in the University of Florida health system between 2020 and 2021. The researchers followed them for at least a year after discharge – keeping a trace of their C-reactive protein (CRP) levels. This protein is secreted by the liver and is a common measure of systemic inflammation.

The results show that patients with a more severe case of the virus and those requiring oxygen or ventilation had higher CRP levels while in hospital. Patients with the highest CRP concentrations had a 61% increased risk of death within the next year after discharge from hospital.

However, the team found that prescribing anti-inflammatory steroids after hospitalization reduced the risk of death by 51%. The study authors say their findings show that current recommendations for care after coronavirus infection need to change. Researchers recommend more widespread use of steroids taken by mouth following a severe case of COVID.

These results appear in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

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